Now that I – and you, and billions around the world – have been condemned to a life of indefinite confinement, I take some solace from recalling Walter Benjamin’s idea that one of the key functions of modernity was to make the great outdoors feel like an enclosed space. Thus, in the modern city there is no stepping out; you are always “inside”, moving from one kind of artificially-lit enclosure to another.
Benjamin had alighted on this idea through his experiences in the “arcades” of nineteenth-century Paris, the precursor of the shopping mall. In our time, the conflation between the indoors and the outdoors is even more absolute. The city has become one big room.
Once, sitting in a Paris café, Benjamin drew a “map” of his life. Nobody knows what that map actually depicted, for it was misplaced by its famously absentminded creator and was never recovered. I imagine it to be a cartographic projection of spatial memory – a network of remembered rooms, libraries, cafés, museums, concert halls and, yes, city streets and shopping arcades that shaped Benjamin’s life. Real-world distances don’t figure on this map; Berlin and Paris, the two cities that were home to Benjamin, aren’t hundreds of miles apart but are coterminous, existing within the confines of a given life.
If I were to ever draw such a map of my own life, it would only depict rooms, in various shapes and sizes corresponding to their significance to my past. It would be a map of a life lived indoors – in schools, colleges and offices, in hotels and in homes. Three rooms in particular would feature prominently on this map.
First, the room I currently inhabit, in my mother’s apartment. I have lived here for more than a decade, and I like to think that I have grown intensely familiar with it, as with a living being. I know my room’s many rhythms. I can sense how it becomes a different place at different hours of the day and in different seasons of the year. How do I gauge that difference?
Not only by the physical signs around me – the way the light changes from afternoon to evening; the way the walls begin to peel and the doors begin to creak during the wet season – but also by observing my varied emotional states triggered by the room: on some days I experience the room as a necessary refuge, while on other days it feels as inhospitable as a prison cell. But I have learnt to live with this. I have accepted that the room is a changing landscape, that the room is a city.
The second room on the map of my life: the room of a hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria, where I spent five years as a student – years that seem, as I look back, to have been mostly squandered in a state of self-imposed social quarantine. I avoided leaving the room, even for lectures and tutorials. It was a small room, with two beds beside opposite walls, two study tables and two chairs.
Like every other room of this hostel in Stundestski Grad – Student City – it was supposed to be shared by two occupants. But in my case, the room-mate never turned up for some reason. “Because they don’t like Indians,” one of my Indian friends liked to theorise.
I didn’t wholly agree with his view, but if this were true I couldn’t be more thankful for East European racism, for without all that time I spent alone in my room, my experience of Sofia would have been very different: it would have been a shared experience and therefore less unique, less private. Without Room 208 – it’s still listed as one of the addresses on my Amazon account – I would never have been able to stop regarding Sofia as a foreign city. I would never have been able to see it as another home.
Time to draw the third room on the map. This was the room I grew up in. It was on the second storey of a chawl-like building in Delhi. I spent more than two decades here, and I keep returning to it through the passage of memory. Although it was a tiny room, it appears as a scaled-up model in my mind’s eye. Everything is outsize: the Godrej cupboard, the Voltas refrigerator; the television set I can’t remember the make of; the LPG cylinder under the kitchen counter; the somewhat wobbly ceiling fan my hands couldn’t reach even when I stood on the bed...
I know it for a fact that the room still exists – at Delhi’s Asaf Ali Road – but I am wary of revisiting it, mainly because it would kill me to realise how small it actually was. It would shatter the Brobdingnagian fantasy – my childhood’s defence mechanism – which makes it easier for me to think of the room as my original home.
All of us – me, my mother, father and sister – lived, ate and slept in this one room, until we got lucky and managed to lay claim to the adjacent room as well. The two rooms were connected from the inside, through a door that always remained open. The always-open door fused the two rooms into one.
On the map of my life, all three rooms are similarly connected, through the doors of my imagination; they feel like the same room. It’s the room that I am always in, and whether I like it or not, I am never stepping out.
Why do I keep returning to the great invalids of literary history, to writers who couldn’t leave their rooms even when they wanted to? Many of them became writers because they could never leave their rooms. Marcel Proust wouldn’t have written his solitary masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, if he hadn’t spent years in quasi-captivity in his apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. “It seems natural to me that I should be ill,” he once wrote to a correspondent.
The briefest contact with the Parisian outdoors would be enough to trigger in him an asthmatic attack. Late one night, having been unable to attend a long-anticipated concert, he invited the string quartet over to his apartment and paid them to perform in his room (when the performance ended, he paid them again for an encore).
Learning to write is in large part learning to love your room, or if not love then learning to at least come to terms with it. It is about understanding that without the room there is no writing. I am not referring merely to the emancipatory overtones attached to the term “room” in this context, evoked most famously, and originally, in Virginia Woolf’s book-length essay A Room of One’s Own. What I also have in mind is the physicality, the physiognomy of the room, its objects and walls and furniture – the part they play in the creative process. Proust never left his bed while writing. How different would his novel have been had he written it at the study table?
That Benjamin would become a devoted admirer, and translator, of Proust need not surprise anyone. It was surely a matter of shared sensibilities and kindred literary tastes. But more than that, I think, it had to do with empathy.
Benjamin saw his own weaknesses – and the connected propensities – reflected in Proust’s character. And he could see that “in Proust weakness and genius are but one”. As Benjamin wrote in his essay “Picturing Proust”, “His asthma entered into his art, if it was not his art that gave rise to it. His syntax rhythmically mimics, step by step, this suffocation anxiety of his.”
What kind of suffocation anxiety is it that makes you averse to open spaces and keeps you in your “darkened room lit by artificial light” (Benjamin’s description of Proust’s room)? It’s difficult to examine. But one could, with some level of confidence, say that those who suffer from this anxiety make expert use of the imagination and of memory – the only two means through which they can, as it were, travel. They get used to remembering and imagining things. Some of them even get used to writing, and for these writers language becomes a bridge between imagination and memory.
The writer remembers, or imagines, through writing; but the writing, in equal measure, determines what’s remembered and what’s imagined. Proust’s term mémoire involontaire – which is also a two-word summary of his creative process – refers to that all-important lack of control and reminds us, yet again, that writing is a form of submission, a form of coming-to-terms.
Involuntary memory sends me to the room I’d rented for a month in Berlin in the summer of 2017. It was in a four-storey walk-up with a wooden staircase and a courtyard inside – a specimen of pre-War Berlin architecture, which Benjamin was so fond of. My room was in an apartment on the top floor.
On my first day there, I found a set of empty canvases and paintbrushes underneath the bed. The previous occupant, I was told, was an artist. Had he forgotten these tools of his trade or abandoned them? I wasn’t sure. But I could tell that my own sense of alienation in that room had something to do with this artist’s still-lingering presence. He’d made the room his own by painting in it, or by trying to paint in it. It was as though the room was haunted; as though he hadn’t just painted in that room but had also died in it.
The room at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, which Proust made his own by writing in it, is now part of an office complex owned by a bank and looks nothing like it used to. Occasionally, meetings are held there for employees and clients. But mostly it remains empty, under lock and key, with nobody around to even feel the presence of Proust’s ghost.